Toy Story 3 Director Lee Unkrich on Not Making Movies for Kids and the Future of Woody and Buzz
With Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich directed the year-to-date's top-grossing film, as well as the highest-grossing animated film of all time. And he's ready for a vacation. But first, he's got to talk to as about the Toy Story 3 Blu-ray Combo Pack (out today), which offers a gorgeous (albeit two-dimensional) version of this terrific comedy-adventure, as well as extras that will keep fans both young and old enrapt. (And you know you cried during the last 20 minutes; don't front like you didn't. I refuse to believe that even Armond White didn't weep at this film's dénouement.)
I appreciated, in listening to the commentary, how much you talked about script and how important that is to you. Tell me about returning to these characters after a long stretch -- was there any worry about coming back to the well?
Well yeah, we worried about it in terms of wanting to make sure we had a story that was worth telling. That was the biggest pressure up front, that we wanted to make another Toy Story film, but we didn't want to make a useless, unnecessary sequel. So we did a lot of talking about different potential ideas, and by having Andy grown up and heading to college, we all kind of knew at that moment that that was the logical way to bring this whole over-arching story that we're telling over the course of the three films to a close.
Pixar has become famous for being a studio unto itself, the way MGM or Warner Bros. were back in the old days, where it all gets done under one roof. You had screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine), who hadn't really been in the club before. Was that a smooth transition?
Well, we've worked with outside writers in the past -- this was unusual, I guess, in that it was Toy Story, and people were surprised that we brought someone in from the outside to write for characters that we had created multiple times internally. I had been working with Michael prior to Toy Story 3 on another idea I was developing, an original idea that was going to be my solo directorial debut at the studio. And I found him because I'm not a writer myself, and I needed to partner with somebody. I read a bunch of scripts, and Little Miss Sunshine happened to be one of them, and I loved it before I knew anything about whether it was being made or not. And so we ended up meeting with Michael and hiring him to come up and work on that.
When Disney bought Pixar, we were finally freed up to make Toy Story 3, so John Lasseter tapped me to direct it, and the first person I turned to was Michael, because we had been working together really well. And I really wanted him to be a part of it, and he was honored to be a part of it, and it ended up being a great partnership. Michael, I guess you could look at him as an outsider to the studio when he came, but he's become a deeply embedded part of all the films at Pixar now. He's part of our core creative brain trust at the studio.
One gets the feeling sometimes that the current generation of parents gets overly protective about what might be too scary or intense for their little darlings, and I love that you guys push that to the limit in this film. Were there discussions about that? Had you planned to go even darker?
I don't think that we're doing anything even on the edge of being inappropriate in the film. There are scenes like the incinerator scene, that are kind of emotionally intense, and that's usually the scene that people bring up when they're talking about what you're talking about. We just felt like we were being emotionally truthful in that moment, and it is an intense situation; we were being truthful about it, not trying to provide comic relief, but to just create a very real, powerful, emotional situation. Yeah, there were discussions over whether it might be too intense for some kids, so we ended up test-screening the film, showing it to a lot of families and a lot of kids, and we actually didn't get any feedback that people thought it was too much. And we were happy to get that feedback, because we thought the scene was working really well and was really powerful, and we're happy to put it out into the world the way it was.
That's heartening to hear. I grew up with the Willy Wonka boat ride.
Right! First of all, we don't make movies for kids, we don't think of it that way. We try to make good movies, period. We know that kids are going to be part of the audience, and we have a responsibility to make it appropriate for them, but we're not trying to create quote-unquote kids' entertainment. Yes, I think a lot of kids' entertainment has gotten more antiseptic over the years, and parents have gotten more and more protective -- and for a lot of good reasons -- but I think it has been too much.
When you look back at the origins of children's literature and entertainment, you have stuff like Grimm's Fairy Tales, which are very dark, and they were about teaching kids about the world, and that there are bad things about the world, and gave examples of kids overcoming those bad things. We're not trying to teach anybody any lessons in this film, we don't have a message, but we do put characters in situations where they do behave in a very emotionally truthful way, and I think it's good for kids to see something like that.
You touched on this somewhat in the commentary track -- the technology has advanced so much since the first Toy Story in 1995, but obviously audiences still want the characters to look the same from movie to movie. How do you expand your palette without making everything look completely different?
At the end of the day, we wanted the film to still feel like a Toy Story film, but we wanted it to look as great as anything we've done recently. We did that by, I think, making a movie that Toy Story would have looked like if we'd had the tools and the artistry that we have now. We kind of overhauled Woody and Buzz and all the other toys; we had to build them from scratch in the computer, and we took that opportunity to make sure that they still felt the same, still pretty much looked the same, but under the hood and in a million tiny details on every one of the characters, we enhanced them and made them much more detailed and more believably like toys.
In terms of how Woody's body is constructed, and the top-stitching, and how he's stuffed -- if you look at Woody in Toy Story 3, you think, "Well, that's how Woody has always looked," but you have to actually look at him side-by-side with the Woody from the first Toy Story, and you can see, it's very evident. Earlier on, I showed some journalists up at Pixar those two [different Woodys], so they could see, and it's very obvious: You can see how we've taken the edge of computer graphics that we had back on Toy Story off of the character and made it look much more like what we always wanted it to be, which is a rag doll come to life.
How flexible were you allowed to be with the licensed characters? Do you get memos from Mattel saying, "Ken can do this, but he can't do that"?
If a toy company ever made those kind of demands, we would pass and move on to something else. We have a great relationship with Mattel, and when we approached them to use Ken, they were really excited, because we had worked with Barbie in Toy Story 2 and everyone thought she was really funny in the film. We had a very particular take on Ken that we wanted to use, and of course we're making fun of him in a lot of different ways, but Mattel was fine with it, because in the end they knew we'd treat the character with respect. I think their only concern was that he turn out to be a good guy in the end, which he did. Other than that, they really let us do our thing, there were no rounds of approval or anything. But we also weren't tried to hide anything from them, we were very up-front at the beginning about what we wanted to do, and we pitched them scenes in storyboard form. They knew very much what we were up to and trusted us to do it.
I think the film gives all the characters a really lovely coda. Can we be secure that this is really it, that this is the last Toy Story feature?
Well, we did our utmost to end the story of Andy's toys. From day one of talking about the film, we knew we were going to end the story of Andy and his toys and bring the story to a nice close, so that's what we tried to do. That being said, we love the characters and we'd hate to think that they're just gone forever now -- or not gone, but only living in the context of the three films -- so we decided that we're going to start doing a series of short films to keep the characters alive. We're going to see Woody and Buzz and the rest of the toys being a part of these shorts. We're done with the first one already, actually; it's going to be released theatrically on the front of Cars 2 in the summer.
And how big a role is 3D playing in future Pixar films? Will you use the process for all of them, or selectively?
No, we're actually using 3D on everything for the time being. You know, there are a lot of people that want 3D, and there are other people that don't like 3D, but we figure we'll give people a choice. We think 3D is a really fun way to watching the movies; I always liken it to looking at a movie through a View-Master. People will be able to see the film however they want to, but in the end, the most important thing to us is that the film not rely on the 3D to tell the story. We just want to make good films, period, whether you seem them in 3D or 2D, the movie will work just as well.
And what's next for you?
After my long vacation, I'm going to get to work on another movie at Pixar, and Darla Anderson will be producing, who I just worked with on Toy Story 3.
Anything you can tell us?
Nothing. Too early. [Laughs]